Child labour, toxic leaks: the price we could pay for a greener future.
Our mission to create cleaner living using natural resources could itself cause widespread environmental harm, scientists now warn
The battle to stave off Earth’s looming climate crisis is driving engineers to develop hosts of new green technologies. Wind and solar plants are set to replace coal and gas power stations, while electric cars oust petrol and diesel vehicles from our roads. Slowly our dependance on fossil fuels is set to diminish and so ease global heating.
But scientists warn there will be an environmental price to pay for this drive to create a world powered by green technology. Prospecting for the materials to construct these devices, then mining them, could have very serious ecological consequences and major impacts on biodiversity, they say.
“The move towards net zero carbon emissions is going to create new stresses on our planet, at least in the short term,” said Prof Richard Herrington, head of earth sciences at the Natural History Museum, London. “We are going to have to learn how to consider profit and loss with regard to ecosystems just as we do now when we are considering economic issues.”
Metals such as lithium and cobalt provide examples of the awkward issues that lie ahead, said Herrington. Both elements are needed to make lightweight rechargeable batteries for electric cars and for storing power from wind and solar plants. Their production is likely to increase significantly over the next decade – and that could cause serious ecological problems.
In the case of cobalt, 60% of the world’s supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where large numbers of unregulated mines use children as young as seven as miners. There they breathe in cobalt-laden dust that can cause fatal lung ailments while working tunnels that are liable to collapse.